Cities and Degrowth

by Melissa García Lamarca

This past 26-29 March Barcelona hosted the second international conference on economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity, attracting hundreds of people from over 40 countries to learn about and collectively explore the subject. Faced with the multiple and complex challenges of climate change and social inequities (among others) due to Western consumption patterns, degrowth is about a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system, proposing a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level and mode of production and consumption. Alongside this reduction of scale, degrowth is also about decolonising the imaginary, shifting values from ‘more is better’ towards qualitative relations and behaviour, as well as decommodifying and pushing back the market rationality that dominates most societies around the world.

While the first international conference in Paris in April 2008 explored and proposed in essence this sort of a paradigm shift, largely through panel discussions and paper presentations, the heart of the Barcelona conference laid in 30 interactive working groups, each on an important topic related to economic degrowth for ecological justice and social sustainability. These working groups were tasked with collectively developing the important research and political proposals to move the degrowth agenda forward in various areas, from topics ranging from work-sharing, property rights and basic income/income ceilings to agro-ecology/food sovereignty, demography and cities.

With a diverse group of about 20 people from different backgrounds, countries and languages, the working group on Cities and Degrowth proved to be a challenging topic and conversation, starting from the basis of defining how a ‘degrowth’ city is different from an ecological or sustainable city. A wide range of issues were discussed, from infrastructure, city sprawl, resource production and consumption, urban agriculture and green spaces to having diversity while maintaining cultural identity, bottom up driven urban planning and if urban population limitation is compatible with the degrowth agenda – with concerns expressed over potential Malthusian interpretations of such issues. While there was general agreement on the need for example to roll back sprawl, remove automobile dependent development, create multifunctional spaces, generate energy locally and through small-scale sources, there was uncertainty on if degrowth equates to limits on urban densities or what to do about the control and power of developers. Were we talking about post-capitalist space? Or at least post-neoliberal spaces? Furthermore it was recognised that context is critical, as solutions for the ‘North’ are likely not the same as the ‘South’, and that scale, from town to megacity, must be taken into consideration.

The two political proposals, among over half a dozen, that emerged as priorities from the session included to 1) reshape and reform current cities instead of building (eco)cities and (eco)neighbourhoods from scratch and 2) to relocalise urban life with multifunctionality (i.e. public space as a commons) in mind. The two research proposals include the need to explore how the decentralisation of political power in the city relates to bottom-up processes and the degrowth agenda, addressing concerns around democracy and the concentration of power, and how Lefebvre’s right to the city – the right of all urban dwellers to take part in the production of the city, transforming social, political and economic relations in urban spaces – connects to degrowth.

So how do you think cities will look after degrowth? Can we plan for degrowth, and if so how (multifunctional urbanism, etc.)? The discussion continues, as most of us left with many more questions than answers.

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.


  1. Hi, a colleague was attending this conference last week and published some paragraphs summing up his first impressions:

    What I am happy to know is that cities were identified as a priority.

  2. It's great to see people coming together to question the pursuit of economic growth. Sustainable development is beginning to seem ineffective. Without rethinking development, it may even facilitate undemocratic and irresponsible use of the earth's resources. Focusing directly on these problems seems more useful and more fulfilling.

    I just hope there's a way that isn't forced, that gives people the autonomy to meet their needs in their own way, and that doesn't completely disregard the many years of human experience through which the current system has developed.

  3. Hola Manu, thanks for the link to your colleague's work and the site, great to see the report-back on the conference and to learn about the broader work you are doing. I also wanted to mention that The Broker has blog entries and videos from several people at the conference that are really interesting as well, you might like to check them out.

    Peter the issue you raise about voluntary participation and enablement in a degrowth context is definitely fundamental and one that was discussed many times with concern - concern due to the time needed for a deliberative democratic process vs. the urgency for change. The fundamental transformation needed in our economic and social systems to live in a more equitable and just world are enormous, and the aim in this conference towards developing research and political proposals are in my opinion a beginning towards finding a collective, creative way to do so. I think a big challenge is how to engage broader society in this discourse, as degrowth to me necessarily implies a net reduction in production in general as well as consumption by upper-middle and rich classes vs. the more ambiguous (and less 'threatening') ways that sustainable development is usually interpreted.

  4. I agree. I wonder if some of the problems associated with economic growth could be resolved if each person was able to debate, or follow the debate, and then vote directly on decisions that affect them? The current model of politicians and business leaders making so many key decisions leaves a lot of room for improvement.

  5. Part of the problem is that degrowth is associated with socialism, and a left political point of view. And the emergecy of the problem would need fast and global action from all political horizons. Do you see hope to unite different views in a common goal?

  6. Salut Yannick, thank you for your points and question. You bring up an interesting issue that made me remember a moment at the conference when a woman directly asked a panel of prominent ecological economists if degrowth could happen in a capitalist system - she said she did not think the two were compatible. I lean towards this perspective as well, because if we recognise capitalism as based in growth, profit and exploitation than it fundamentally contradicts the root concepts behind degrowth. Yet the answer to the question was skirted around, not one of the panelists directly spoke about the incompatibility of capitalism and degrowth.

    I think many people (panelists included) feel the issue you raised, that the urgency of the problem needs action from all political parties, but do not want to alienate people (i.e. particularly the right) by saying that capitalism will not work. It is definitely a tricky situation: how we make systemic change happen with some sort of social cohesion? I think that if degrowth maintains its strong meaning (similar to the concept of 'strong sustainability') it would be difficult to unite different views - unless some radical event shakes conservatives / capitalists to their core and/or totally destabilises the system, for example. In my very personal opinion I think if/when degrowth attempts to unite different views it will become watered down (greenwashed), turning into the next new, 'it' thing, and rather turn towards co-opted notions of sustainable development - lots of talk about action but none of the fundamental systemic changes we need for a more sustainable world.

    The good news is that the promoters of degrowth that I met at the conference are extremely intelligent, conscious and concerned about this challenge and the need for an open and democratic dialogue - while recognising urgency for change. Time will tell how this unfolds, we are all part of this process at different scales.

  7. Thanks Melissa for this insight. I believe that degrowth has a lot to do with life styles as much as political economy. Similarly to the issue of sustainability, in order to work degrowth requires, on the one hand political will and public support, on the other hand it also requires a change in the choices people make in our everyday life. In short, we need to reconsider if our consumption needs and think of a concept of development based on happiness rather than on material property. Ecuador is a very interesting example since it discarded the word "development" in its National Development Plan. They now call it "Plan Nacional del Buen Vivir", a concept taken from the indigenous Kichua word Sumak Kawsay, which focuses on "good living" instead of development.

  8. I completely agree with you Jordi, degrowth most definitely has multiple facets and scales, and our day-to-day consumption choices that define our lifestyles are of critical importance. Kawsay's "good living" an other indigenous concepts of well-being were discussed during the conference, especially during the poster session on degrowth beyond Europe and the West. Another great example is in Bhutan, where instead of GDP Gross National Happiness is used as an indicator to measure progress.

  9. dpr-barcelona recently tweeted this article by Herman Daly: Steady-state economics versus growthmania: A critique of the orthodox conceptions of growth, wants, scarcity, and efficiency. You'll find a link to the full article PDF there, as well as this abstract:

    Section I discusses the "growthmania" mind-set and considers various types of limits to growth ignored by adherents to this majority position.

    Section II investigates the conceptual roots of growthmania: the orthodox doctrines of relative scarcity and absolute wants. It is argued that at the margin the opposite categories of absolute scarcity and relative wants are more important, and that just as the implication of the former categories was growthmania, so the implication of the latter (opposite) categories is a steady-state economy.

    Section III defines and discusses the alternative to a growth-oriented economy, namely a steadystate economy.

    Section IV discusses the notions of efficiency and technical progress from the steady-state perspective, and argues that growth in output flow as conventionally measured results, beyond some point, in a reduction in both the service efficiency of the stock and the maintenance efficiency of the throughput, and thereby makes throughput growth a perverse index of welfare.

    In Section V the issue of transition to and appropriate institutions for a steady-state are discussed.

    Section VI considers in more detail an institution for controlling aggregate throughput, namely a system of auctioned depletion quotas, and contrasts it with the orthodox recommendation of pollution taxes.